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Merging fact with fiction: developing students' scientific literacy through story writing on a socioscientific issue

Louisa Tomas

Dr Louisa Tomas is a lecturer in the School of Education, James Cook University. Email: louisa.tomas@jcu.edu.au.


The development of scientific literacy is an important educational priority (OECD 2006, Rennie & Goodrum 2007, Tytler, 2007), driven by concerns over the results of international assessments of science student achievement, and by growing evidence of students' waning interest in school science, particularly in the middle years of schooling.

Recent research suggests that students' scientific literacy may be improved by having them participate in short story writing tasks on scientific themes. In a recent two-year study, Ritchie, Tomas & Tones (2010) investigated the learning experiences of Year 6 students as they wrote a series of short stories that merge scientific information about the socioscientific issue of biosecurity with narrative storylines. The study found that writing these 'hybridised' short stories enhanced students' familiarity with biosecurity issues, helped them to develop a deeper understanding of related biological concepts, and improved their interest in science.

In her subsequent doctoral study (Tomas 2010), the current author refined and extended this intervention with 152 students in Year 9, a time when students begin to make subject choices that determine their career paths.


Research design and procedures

The entire cohort of Year 9 students at a co-educational secondary school in Queensland participated in the study. Students wrote a series of three short stories about biosecurity, uploading their work on a dedicated project website. In the first two tasks, the students were presented with unfinished stories which they were asked to complete. The story scenarios involved exotic species, such as fire ants, chytrid fungus, silverleaf whitefly, tilapia and avian influenza, which threaten native Australian ecosystems and/or agricultural industries. The website also provided links to digital resources on government websites to help the students locate scientific information that could be used in the stories. The project culminated in the creation of a third, unique story written entirely by the students on a biosecurity-related topic of their choice. Throughout the project, students participated in a process of online peer review, as a way of helping them to refine their texts.

The stories written by students in one selected class were quantitatively analysed to produce numerical scores reflecting students' conceptual understandings about biosecurity, and their ability to present scientific information in short story format.

All students in the project also completed the 'BioQuiz', an online questionnaire which examined some of their knowledge and opinions about science and science learning, including their familiarity with and attitudes toward biosecurity.

Interviews were subsequently conducted with 26 students, to provide further insight into their developing scientific literacy and their experiences of the project.


Summary of findings and discussion

Analysis of the stories and the responses to the BioQuiz provided evidence that the project enhanced students' awareness and conceptual understanding of issues relating to biosecurity. Participation in the study was also found to improve students' attitudes toward science and science learning, science self-efficacy, and their perceptions of the value of science, for themselves and for society as a whole.

In the interviews, students expressed their enjoyment of the writing activities, suggesting that they allowed them to exercise their imagination and creativity while learning something new. The students also indicated that they now had a greater interest in learning science. Writing the stories seems to have made science learning more accessible, particularly for students who identified as not enjoying science, and for those who experienced difficulty with the subject. The writing enabled them to take ownership and play an active role in the learning process.

During the interviews, students successfully articulated scientific concepts that had been presented in the stories. However, the interviews also revealed different aspects of students' understanding to those evident in the stories. Individual students sometimes showed deeper conceptual understandings than they had demonstrated in their stories, while at other times they displayed superficial or problematic understandings that had not been apparent in their writing. These findings underline the value of using a combination of assessment strategies to gain a fuller picture of students' developing scientific literacy.

The interviews were also useful in revealing differences among individual students' conceptions of scientific issues. In the classroom situation, alternative forms of oral assessment such as debates about contentious socioscientific issues can provide students with opportunties to verbalise their science understandings in a way that cannot be fully realised through writing.

Current literature on how to deal with socioscientific issues in the science classroom often emphasises the development of scientific knowledge through data interpretation; analysis of conflicting evidence; and argumentation, the making and justifying of claims and conclusions (Sadler 2004). A number of studies have also investigated the role of emotion and affect in engaging students in socioscientific issues, particularly issues that are seen to present moral and ethical dilemmas, such as genetic engineering (eg Sadler & Zeidler 2004, 2005; Zeidler & Schafer 1984). Findings from the current research suggest that suitably targeted writing activities that merge scientific and narrative genres complement these existing approaches to scientific learning in the classroom, and provide another means to develop students' conceptual understandings about science and improve their disposition toward the subject.

The inclusion of hybridised short stories in the science curriculum can be used to broaden the genres with which students engage in the negotiation of socioscientific issues. At the same time, the inclusion of these activities would open an avenue to further research into the relationship between emotions and the achievement of scientific literacy.


References

OECD (2006). Assessing Scientific, Reading and Mathematical Literacy: A Framework for PISA. 2006. Paris: OECD Publications.

Rennie, LJ, & Goodrum, D (2007). Australian School Science Education National Action Plan 2008–2012, Volume 2. Background Research and Mapping. Canberra: Australian Government Department of Education, Science and Training.

Ritchie, SM, Tomas, L, & Tones, M (2010). Writing stories to enhance scientific literacy. International Journal of Science Education. First published on: 17th June 2010 (iFirst). DOI: 10.1080/09500691003728039.

Sadler, TD (2004). Moral and ethical dimensions of socioscientific decision-making as integral components of scientific literacy. Science Educator, 13(1), 39–48.

Sadler, TD, & Zeidler, DL (2004). The morality of socioscientific issues: construal and resolution of genetic engineering dilemmas. Science Education, 88(1), 4–27.

Sadler, TD, & Zeidler, DL (2005). Patterns of informal reasoning in the context of socioscientific decision making. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 42(1), 112–138.

Tomas, L (2010). Merging fact with fiction: a study of Year 9 students' developing scientific literacy through the writing of hybridised scientific narratives on a socioscientific issue. Unpublished PhD thesis, Queensland University of Technology, Kelvin Grove, Queensland.

Tytler, R (2007). Re-imagining science education: engaging students in science for Australia's future. Australian Council for Educational Research. Retrieved 20 July, 2007 from www.acer.edu.au/documents/AER51_ReimaginingSciEdu.pdf

Zeidler, DL, & Schafer, LE (1984). Identifying mediating factors of moral reasoning in science education. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 21(1), 1–15.

Key Learning Areas

Science

Subject Headings

Science teaching
Science literacy
Writing
Middle schooling
Secondary education